Glenn Beck’s gone to pot. On Thursday, he devoted his entire radio show to the question of drug legalization. He’d been dropping hints for weeks that the abuse of police power was pushing him toward endorsement. The plan, as Beck teased all week, was this: One hour with an “anti” guy: Robert White, co-author of Going to Pot: The Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America. One hour with a “pro” guy: Jacob Sullum, author of Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use. And then, they fight. At the end of the show? With all but a drum roll, Beck would announce his policy with all the pageantry of a presidential candidate.
He expected a lot of media coverage for the stunt—billed by him as “The Pot Show”—but perhaps in the end, the lack of it (even I got bored and stopped tweeting about it) pushed him beyond the question of pot decriminalization to announce, “I would open it up to all drugs [potentially being legalized],” and leave it up to the states.
Beck also suggested abolishing the Food and Drug Administration, which is great news for advocates of recreational pesticide smoking.
It’s evidence of how completely Beck has surrendered to his own media ecosystem that he showcased changing his mind as though it were a series cliffhanger. Or, more to the point, a new product rollout, which is closer to what his announcement was: not so much a change in policy position as a piece of branded propaganda, an item that fits surprisingly well into the existing line up of Beck opinions, theories, goals, and beard oils.
Beck’s support for ending the drug war doesn’t move him one inch closer to the center. Rather, he conjured up a justification for legalization that actually puts him further to the right.
During the first hour with White, Beck admitted that his lingering concerns with decriminalization stemmed from general disagreement with the idea that he should have to pay the price for someone else’s bad decisions: “As long as we’re a society … paying for everybody’s health care, having to take care of everybody else, you don’t have a right [to do drugs] because you’re screwing everybody else. You’re enjoying yourself, but I have to pay for you for the rest of life. And that’s not right, nor is it fair.”
But by the time Sullum came on, he’d flipped the thought around: Legalizing drugs would be fine, as long as we don’t have to take care of those that abuse them. Or, as he put it: “We’re not a country that understands self-reliance and self-responsibility,” so legalizing drugs might be a bad idea, at least until “[w]hen I and everyone else can comfortably step over [the addict on the street] … [and] be willing to let him die.”
So much for the idea that pro-legalization types are aging flower children or hippie nostalgists. Beck’s pro-legalization stance means he’s decided we’re all pretty comfortable with letting addicts die.
There’s tough love and then there’s doomsday libertarianism. That’s not a vision of a future in which rational adults make individual decisions about what to do with their bodies, that’s a Hobbesian state of nature—and that’s the world Beck wants his audience to believe they live in already.
Just look at ads that fill the spaces between content on The Blaze network: In one hour, I counted spots for Goldline, emergency food preparedness supplies, steel safes, solar energy emergency generators, a DVD series on conceal carry practices, a manpurse with a hidden holster (it’s called “The Stalker”—fun!), Lifelock identity protection and a self-defense how-to book that promises to teach “the SECRET to defeating bigger, stronger attackers with only your bare hands” (in case you lose The Stalker, I guess!)
Beck isn’t an entertainer, he’s a merchant of fear, and whatever ideological pitch he makes is mostly a wrapper for that terror.
Beck’s legalization revelation is of a piece with another very special Blaze TV production that also debuted Thursday night: Excessive Force, an hour-long documentary on the rise of brutality and militarism among local police. Again, one might be tempted to think this is a step onto shared territory: some civil libertarianism that unites left and right. And you would be, again, wrong.
I didn’t think it would be possible to produce a documentary about police violence and the drug war that doesn’t mention the routine murder of black and brown people, or the devastating effects of locking away generations of fathers. And yet, on The Blaze race was mentioned only once: “The riots of the ’60s,” Beck explains, “fueled by progressive left ideology like Bill Ayers … paved the way for Los Angeles to create” the first SWAT teams. John Whitehead, of the libertarian Rutherford Institute, goes on to explain, “They were supposed to fight ‘thugs,’ but actually were policing minority neighborhoods.”
From there, Beck runs with the narrative of a police force gone wild, collecting military hardware in the name of the war on drugs and the war on terror. He details how the Pentagon has knitted its ties to local law enforcement so tightly that police almost operate as an extension of the military—and that’s dangerously close to unconstitutional.
He’s not wrong, of course, and a lot of what he and his talking heads have to say wouldn’t be out of place on Rachel Maddow’s show, or Bill Moyer’s. Yes, this collusion between arms manufacturers, the military, and the police is “exactly what Eisenhower warned us about,” and, yes, it is disturbing that the PATRIOT Act gives the military “the right to lock up ‘detainees’—should they be designated as such—indefinitely and without due process.”
But Beck tells almost the entire story of how the police have come to be a force of terror to many people—he just leaves out who they have been terrorizing. He warns that this militarization is “building mistrust instead of trust. It’s breaking down communities, not building them,” but he somehow doesn’t see that he could count this conspiracy theory in “proven” column already: Just look at Ferguson, at Baltimore, almost anywhere that black people live.
Why ignore the proof of his premise? Why erase the opportunity to talk about the real human cost of this terrible trend?
In Beck’s telling, the main consequence of this police escalation and the war on drugs was not the mass incarceration of millions, or even the drug war’s pointlessness, or it’s monetary cost. No, Beck’s darkest spin on “Excessive Force” is that the police have joined forces with the military and therefore are now part of the federal government.
And, obviously, that’s bad. Why? Because the federal government is out to get you. “You,” the Blaze viewer. Not any generic “you” that might encompass Freddie Gray or Eric Garner or Michael Brown.
Indeed, on the off chance that a viewer might be a police officer himself, Beck clarified on his own daily TV show that the Obama government’s nefarious plans to continue to militarize the police (that executive order was just for show!) has nothing to do with violence that’s already being committed:
“This is orchestrated, and we must know what’s going on and what the end of the road is,” Beck said. Obama “is creating the impression that you’re out of control and you have too much stuff, when in reality he is not taking any of that stuff away. His people are holding you back while they are calling for the Justice Department to take over local policing. Don’t you see the game that is being played, and the cops are being set up? By God, man, I’m your best friend because no one else will talk about this!”
At a time when the nation is beginning to understand that there is a problem with systematic violence by police against black people, Beck is telling his audience that they are the real targets.
When Beck winds up his dismal portrait of police violence, he cites a list of “extremist” categories supposedly culled from government documents. It includes “those that talk about ‘individual liberties,’” “those that advocate for states’ rights,” “anyone that is opposed to Agenda 21,” and “those that “believe in the right to bear arms.”
He might as well have the screen go black and hope viewers see their reflection in the glass. This direct appeal to his audience is what explains the absence of black faces and stories from Beck’s history. Their fantasy of persecution is too delicate to allow for the presence of other victims.